Ehud Barak Atzmaut 17.1.2011 Emil Salman
From left: Shalom Simhon, Einat Wilf, Ehud Barak, Orit Noked and Matan Vilnai announce the creation of the Atzmaut party, Jan. 17, 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced yesterday that he is quitting his post as head of the Labor party and establishing a new party, Atzmaut (Independence ).

Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, Deputy Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor Orit Noked and MK Einat Wilf also announced their exit from the Labor party. The departure of all five party members was approved yesterday by the Knesset House Committee.

Responding to the formation of Atzmaut, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog and Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman - all members of the Labor party - announced their resignation from the government.

Barak's surprising announcement was relayed just after 10:00 A.M. yesterday. The defense minister convened a press conference in the Knesset, alongside the other four departing Labor politicians. One of Barak's assistants described the move as "a major maneuver in the country of maneuvers - an extremely discrete one."

"We are leaving today for Atzmaut," Barak said. "We are establishing a new party and movement. The party will be a centrist one, Zionist and democratic - a movement whose priorities will begin with the state, followed by the party, and, last, ourselves. We call upon all those who believe in this agenda to join us."

Barak also accused his former Labor colleagues of harboring "post-modernist" and "post-Zionist" views.

"We are leaving a party and a home that we love, and we still respect its members," stated Barak. "But we've reached the conclusion that the time has come to put an end to this anomaly in the political framework, under which there were actually two Labor parties."

The three Labor ministers who did not take part in the exodus - Ben-Eliezer, Herzog and Braverman - were apparently stunned by Barak's announcement. Herzog was on his way to his office; Braverman had just completed his morning walk and was en route to meet with former President Yitzhak Navon; and Ben-Eliezer was headed to Tel Hai, to dedicate two new factories.

Ben-Eliezer was midway there when Barak called, telling him, "I don't want you to hear this on the radio - this morning I'm leaving the party with four colleagues."

Understanding immediately that this had already been finalized, Ben-Eliezer made a u-turn and returned immediately to his office in Jerusalem. Things then moved very quickly. The three ministers, each of whom had declared in recent weeks that Labor should leave the government if the peace process does not move forward, realized they had very few options. They then decided to quit the government.

After an urgent consultation, the three men stood before cameras and announced their resignations.

Barak's new party will be part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition. Negotiations to attain a pact between Atzmaut and coalition heads will likely be completed in the next few days, perhaps even today.

Of the defense minister's four colleagues in this surprise move, Simhon appears to have been its most conspicuous organizer. Their collective departure stirred a great deal of responses yesterday.

Netanyahu, who knew the move was in the works, announced yesterday that "the government was strengthened today. This is important for the State of Israel." Opposition head Tzipi Livni said yesterday: "This is a bad day for the Netanyahu government. But I believe that it is also a day of hope for Israel, because the collapse of the government will follow the collapse of the Labor party. Elections will be held, and at long last the public will be able to freely choose its leaders."